Sometimes I wonder how the expat life is being interpreted by, not only my son, but the British kids of families here in Maryland where we live.
The journey for many of them is fleeting – those who are under six will have vague memories of it when they grow up, yet will be made to remember certain events or places as the adults reminisce such things as:
‘You know the one, Harry…… that waterfall in the Shenandoah Valley where you fell in and your swimming trunks fell off.’ Followed by parents roaring with laughter and a confused 14 year old trying to both picture and forget the event that took place eight years ago….However, I’m also sure that it will almost certainly be a ‘cool’ thing for those expat Brit kids who return. They will be a little different, for sure. And as American culture inevitably oozes into their lives in the UK, so they might feel some kind of affinity to it. Who knows, they might even have a yearning to return when they get older.
There is a hybrid mix of British children in the expat community in Maryland. Some were born here and can claim their rights to both American and British citizenship. Some come here aged two, and leave aged six, with American culture, accents and schooling a firm part of their being. Some are teenagers here and struggle to fit in. When everyone’s being playing baseball for years and years and you’re a cricket kid, how does it really feel to have to learn it all from scratch?
One of the most amusing things about the British kids out here is the accents. I’ve heard a bunch of British kids who’ve been here a few weeks talking with a genuine American twang, no matter what company they’re in. Others, like my son, flit between the two – American accent for school and friends, and British accent at home (though I have told him to keep the British accent as much as possible, because the American chicks love it!).
One of my favourite accents in a British kid who’s been here 11 years and is now 21 (so, by American terms, he’s an official drinker, and therefore an adult). His parents still speak with deep Northern accents (think Warrington) and their son’s accent is like a kaleidoscope of sounds. He speaks with a Northern British brogue, an American New England-style drawl, a Maryland-style inflection, and a very proper British nasal sound. I often just get him to talk so I can pick out the various sounds.
Besides accents, there are little affectations that the kids pick up from their American surroundings. Here in Maryland it’s common to call your parents friends ‘Miss’ or ‘Mr’. I’m often ‘Miss Claire’ to American kids, and also to some of the converted British cohort. It’s a very polite way to greet someone, but not one that I’m overly comfortable with, because it makes me think I’m a 19th Century school teacher in the Frontier in a pinafore and tight buns (that’s hair-buns, not bottom-buns). Many British parents have also adopted this turn of phrase and I’ll be interested to hear whether this quirk is dropped or continued once they and their kids and back in the UK.
As far as adopting the language of America is concerned, my son still calls a ‘sidewalk’ a ‘pavement’ and ‘potato chips’ are still ‘crisps’. We laugh at the fact that the ‘boot’ of a car is referred to as a ‘trunk’. (‘Why did they name it after an elephant’s nose?’ he enquired the other day, but I guess similar can be asked of us as to why we named it after a type of shoe….).
Also amusing is his British thought process, which still very much exists. Just last week Harry spotted a hole at the base of a tree. ‘A badger’s hole!’ he declared. The American woman next to him clucked her tongue and responded thus: ‘More likely a groundhog’s hole,’. I explained that in the UK by our house we had badger holes and this was his point of reference, but what really interested me was that, after two years in the States, my son still observes things with a very British influence and this resonates through much of what he says, does and how he interprets things.
At school my son did try to be more American by writing ‘poop’ in his journal, when asked to share what he had done that day. This was corrected, much to our amusement, by his teacher to ‘bathroom break’.
But is this expat life a reality for the kids in America? Maybe for some, but my son sees it as something else all together, and perhaps this way of thinking is how we expats should learn to take advantage of our experience, if we can….
The other morning we were having breakfast on the deck in the sunshine.
‘It’s just like being on holiday,’ said I.
‘We are on holiday,’ said Harry.
‘Is that how it feels?’ I ask.
‘Yes, because we live in England, remember. And this is a holiday. A very, very long holiday.’
To me, this is a true reflection of how my son is letting himself enjoy his life out here, and yet it also shows how he remembers who he is and where he is from. Harry has been influenced greatly by his expat American experience and will have some amazing memories. He’s been to places, seen things, done things, experiences cultures and met people that he wouldn’t have if he had stayed in the UK, and I see that as something that will influence him far beyond our immediate return to England. In his subconscious there will always be this part of him that experienced something very special and which will shape him in many, many different ways.
Claire McGill is a British expat who enjoys writing about American bits and bobs. She says: ‘I've lived in Columbia, Maryland for nearly two years and I like to write about all the things that confuse, amuse and bemuse me about being in the USA.
I like to observe and compare our quirky traits, personalities and oddities because there are many and they are endlessly fascinating. From breaking into mailboxes, to going on police ride-alongs; from polarised poverty and wealth, to getting my head round guns and the glamour of politics; from my mission to crush stink bugs, to the American obsession with pulled pork; and from the wonder that is the PTA, to American attitudes to nudity – I write about it all! You can find my blog at www.ukdesperatehousewifeusa.com.